SUFFERING & WHY WE TEND TO LOOK THE OTHER WAY
By Vincent Lyn
The worldwide refugee crisis now involves 84 million people displaced from their homes, a record high. A million people still die from malaria every year. Right now, in Yemen, a famine has left 17.5 million people extremely close to starvation.
You’d hope tragedies at this scale would be met with an equally outsize outpouring of compassion and action. Unfortunately, human psychology doesn’t work that way. Mass tragedies don’t magnify our concern or our compassion. If anything, they numb us. Humans have an incredible ability to push things out of our minds when it’s too much for our minds to absorb. As in mass suffering.
There are a lot of things in the world right now that are bad, really bad, though people who don’t live in developed countries would tell you that is always the case. We just don’t have the bandwidth to absorb news from places we can’t imagine. Or we don’t care. Or it simply could be our way of self-preservation.
Here in the U.S, we’ve hit the one million mark for COVID-19 deaths over the past two years. It will barely get a mention, not much more than a momentary factoid. An infamous quote by Josef Stalin, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic” — to highlight the military’s tendency to give more importance to a “single” casualty if it was an American than to the million civilians who perished if they were non-American.
A scientist named Paul Slovic and professor at the University of Oregon, conducted experiments that provide an unusual window into why the United States has often failed to intervene in humanitarian crises — and why it is likely to remain slow to do so in the future.
Slovic’s research suggests that the central reason the United States has not responded forcefully — and quickly — to crises ranging from the Holocaust to the Rwandan genocide, from the ethnic cleaning that occurred in the 1990s Balkan conflict to the crisis in Sudan’s Darfur region and even the present ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine in what the United Nations calls the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II. It’s not that presidents are uncaring, or that Americans only value American lives, but that the human mind has been unintentionally designed to respond in perverse ways to large-scale suffering.
In a rational world, we should care twice as much about a tragedy affecting 100 people as about one affecting 50. We ought to care 80,000 times as much when a tragedy involves 4 million lives rather than 50. But Slovic has proved in experiments that this is not how the mind works.
When a tragedy claims many lives, we often care less than if a tragedy claims only a few lives. When there are many victims, we find it easier to look the other way. Virtually by definition, the central feature of humanitarian disasters and genocide is that there are a large number of victims.
“The first life lost is very precious, but we don’t react very much to the difference between 88 deaths and 87 deaths,” Slovic said in an interview. “You don’t feel worse about 88 than you do about 87.”
Slovic did one experiment shortly after the Rwandan genocide. He asked volunteers whether they were willing to spend precious resources getting water to a refugee camp in Zaire, now called Congo. There were many pressing demands for the money, but Slovic told the volunteers that the water could save 4,500 lives. Without the volunteers’ awareness, however, the researcher told some people the refugee camp had 11,000 people while telling others that the camp had 100,000 people. The number of lives that could be saved was the same in both cases — 4,500 — but Slovic found that people were reluctant to divert resources to save lives in a large camp rather than the same number of lives in a small camp.
In another experiment, Slovic asked people to imagine they were disbursing money on behalf of a large foundation: They could give $10 million to fight a disease that claimed 20,000 lives a year — and save 10,000 of those lives. But they could also devote the $10 million to fight a disease that claimed 290,000 lives a year — and this investment would save 20,000 lives.
Slovic found that people preferred to spend the money saving the 10,000 lives in the first scenario rather than the 20,000 lives in the second scenario: “People were responding not to the number of lives saved but the percentage of lives saved,” he said. In the one case, their investment could save half the victims; in the case of the more deadly disease, it could save 7 percent of the victims.
There are parallels between such behavior and how we perceive physical sensations, and evolution’s hand in shaping the way we perceive physical sensations may be behind the errors we make in judging suffering among our fellow humans. We are sharply aware of the difference between total darkness and the light thrown off by a five-watt bulb, but we are hard pressed to tell the lighting difference between a 90-watt bulb and a 100-watt one.
Slovic said people probably are inappropriately — and unconsciously — using a similar metric in humanitarian crises: Failing to save only half the victims in a tragedy seems less dreadful than failing to save 93 percent of the victims of another tragedy. The mathematical side of our brain could tell us the absolute number of victims saved is more important than the percentage of survivors, but our analytical side isn’t usually in charge.
Slovic has also shown that the amount of compassion humans feel can diminish as the number of victims increases: In an experiment in Israel, Slovic asked volunteers whether they would help raise $300,000 to save eight children who were dying of cancer. Those in another group were told only about one child with cancer and asked how much they were willing to donate to save the life of that child. Slovic found that people were willing to give more money to save one life than to save eight.
“When we trust our feelings in these cases, we are led down the path of turning our backs on the suffering of many people,” Slovic said. “Even though we don’t think of ourselves as uncaring, if we trust our moral intuition, it is not designed by evolution to respond accurately to these types of situations of mass tragedy.”
Slovic’s work showing people’s tendency to intervene in situations in which they can save all or most of the victims, but to turn away from situations in which they cannot help most of the victims, has important ramifications. It is often the case that we can do something even if we can’t do everything, and we ought not do nothing just because we can’t do everything.
Slovic’s work on why we tune out mass tragedies. Slovic’s work is referenced often by many psychologists who seek to understand decision-making. Here’s the stark truth of it: “There is no constant value for a human life, the value of a single life diminishes against the backdrop of a larger tragedy.”
One of Slovic’s recent studies demonstrated this very simply. In the experiment, Slovic and his colleagues asked participants about their willingness to donate to children in need. When the number of victims in the experiment rose from one to two, the researchers recorded a decrease in empathy for the kids, as well as smaller donations to them. That’s all it takes.
Against the backdrop of a huge tragedy, the value of a single human life gets diminished
Take this example. What if you were told you could take an action that could help save 4,500 people in a refugee camp? That sounds pretty good, right? You’d be a hero. But there are circumstances in which saving that many people feels less good, and makes you less likely to act on it.
In an experiment, “People were less likely to do something that would save 4,500 lives in a refugee camp if that camp had 250,000 people than if it had 11,000 people,” Slovic says. It’s the same number of people. But in the context of a larger tragedy, it just doesn’t feel as good to help them.
Here’s one reason: As the number of victims in a tragedy grow, we feel more and more powerless to help. So we shut down those feelings of empathy.
But this helplessness is a lie. “Even partial solutions save whole lives,” Slovic reminds us. Small changes to gun control laws could save lives. Small donations for mosquito nets can save whole lives. And even if you can’t rescue a person from a situation entirely, just doing something to reduce their suffering can help.
Fighting through the numbness is hard; it goes against our instincts. We grow numb to millions but immediately relate to individuals. Why do we do this? Why can’t we scale up our compassion when more and more people are in trouble? The answer is, basically, that our brains resist that type of thinking. “The feeling system doesn’t really add,” Slovic explains. “It can’t multiply; it doesn’t handle numbers very well.”
No, the brain can’t imagine millions of people. But it is really good at thinking and caring about individuals.
We can understand individuals: It’s why stories about one sick child often overshadow massive crises. Remember Charlie Gard? In 2017, he was an 11-month-old U.K resident with a rare fatal disease. Some Republicans in Congress wanted to make Gard a U.S resident so he could get experimental treatment. Many of those same Republicans voted for health care legislation that would have taken health care away from millions in this country. The one boy was an emergency. The millions? An abstraction.
This is the key insight of psychic numbing research: Our system of feelings doesn’t do math. “It’s maximized at the number one: ‘Protect myself. Protect the person in front of me,’” Slovic said. “People who are like us, near us, near in time, things like that — we get a strong emotional response when they’re in danger.”
Not only that, but empathy is often biased: We tend to be more automatically empathetic to people who look like us. It’s possible to redirect the tragedy of one to help out a larger cause
There are a few ways to combat psychic numbing.
Charities have long understood the ”identifiable victim effect,” which finds that images of singular victims are easier to empathize with than statistics or stories about large groups of people.
In 2015, a photograph of a drowned Syrian refugee boy (Alan Kurdi, whose first name was also reported as Aylan) became a powerful, tragic focal point in the public’s consciousness about the Syrian civil war, which had killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions more up to that point.
With the photo, Slovic says, “people suddenly started to care about the Syrian war and the refugees, in ways that the statistics of hundreds of thousands of deaths had not led them to pay attention to.” That interest was sustained — as measured by Google searches — for about a month.
It wasn’t just a search interest. After the photo, donations to a charity in support of Syrian refugees also soared.
“These dramatic stories of individuals or photographs give us a window of opportunity where we’re suddenly awake and not numbed, and we want to do something,” Slovic says. “If there’s something we can do, like donate to the Red Cross, people will do it. But then if there’s nothing else they can do, then over time, that gets turned off again.”
There’s something else we can do: Any time we can emphasize the individuality, the unique humanity of people amid a huge tragedy, it can help.
Psychologists have long known that simple turns of phrase can change our thinking. In 2017, psychologist Kurt Gray and colleagues experimented on a wording tweak to help the public increase empathy for others.
It’s extremely simple: What if instead of saying “a group of people,” we highlighted “people in a group”? Would that emphasize individuality enough to increase the perception that those people have working, thinking, feeling minds?
It did. Highlighting people’s individuality led participants to see more humanity in them. There’s a simple lesson: Saying “100 Syrian refugees in a group” may be more emotionally resonant than “a group of 100 Syrian refugees.”
Still, stoking compassion remains a huge challenge for charities. The biggest troubles the world faces involve huge numbers of people, but we’re only emotionally equipped to handle the problems on an individual scale.
“Look at the problems we have in this world,” Slovic says. “The scale of various kinds of problems is so vast.”
Big problems in the world demand more attention. And we have to fight against the tendency to become numb to them.
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
International Human Rights Commission
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts